In the TARDIS, the Fourth Doctor asks Gandalf and The LEGO Movie’s Wyldstyle if they would care to have a jellybaby. I’m either asleep and having one of my more awesome dreams … or I’m awake at the demo for LEGO Dimensions. Yup, I’m awake. And I’m playing the LEGO version of Doctor Who.
For more than 80 years, LEGO has been giving children and adults building blocks to create their own worlds — no matter how inventive or surreal it may seem. If you want to bring Batman to the land of Oz, sure, have a Batman-in-Oz party. You’re only limited by your imagination. Now, for the first time, this anarchic creativity can be seen in one of their videogames, LEGO Dimensions. And if you want, you can place Batman (and his batarang) in the world of flying monkeys. Or in Jurassic World. Or in Back to the Future.
So what did I see when I was awake, yet in the dreamland that let me play LEGO Doctor Who?
THE TOY PAD
LEGO is leaping into the “toy to life” market, currently dominated by Skylanders. The toys that come with LEGO Dimensions are an inherent part of the game. Place your mini figure on the enclosed toy pad. Then any one of the characters, vehicles and miscellaneous items (like a Scooby Snack) placed on the toy pad appears, fully playable, in game.
Dimensions starts with Wyldstyle, Gandalf and tiny, surly Batman (voiced to perfection by Troy Baker). We also get a Batmobile, which, as with any vehicle in the game, can be reconfigured and upgraded three separate ways — once you unlock one of the game’s many gold bricks, which are scattered throughout the LEGO worlds.
The aforementioned toy pad is also an essential piece of gameplay. Characters have to move from one side of the pad to the next to engage in on-screen activities. For example, I moved Wyldstyle to the red side of the toy pad (the light on the pad changes, depending on the on-screen action). Suddenly, I could shoot fire.
Moving the pieces around the toy pad is a clever way of having the game reach into the real world. However, for me, it almost breaks the immersion I experience when I’m deeply caught up in a game. Your mileage may vary.
I started off in the TARDIS and made my way to a room that I needed to exit. A few smashed bricks later, I accessed an “elemental” terminal (for lack of a better word), which gave my then-character Wyldstyle the ability to use electricity, fire and/or water to ultimately open a door (previously, in the Batman games, you needed to acquire a special suit before using special powers—but not every character could use them).
Finally, I opened the door. Uh-oh. A Cyberman. If Ben Grimm were here, I’d say it’s clobberin’ time.
I soon switched to Oz, just to see what there was to see. There was even more game than I realized: For every level, there’s an alternate freakin' dimension. So, even though I went to Oz, I jumped down a cliff ... and found myself in the black-and-white world of LEGO Kansas. Nifty.
But then Portal beckoned. There’s a minifig Chell, and voices by Ellen McLain and J.K. Simmons (who had just won his Oscar the weekend before he recorded the audio for Dimensions). There's the humor and puzzles you expect in a Portal game. And it was all here — in LEGO form. Awesome.
As for the gameplay, if you’ve ever got your hands on a LEGO game before, you know the basics. Break bricks. Build other bricks. Collect studs, which are the game’s version of cash. Spend studs to unlock bricks. Solve puzzles. Switch out your characters, as only certain characters have the abilities you need (such as sneak, acrobatics, magic, etc.) to access different parts of the game.
But Dimensions plays like a LEGO game on steroids, and it’s not just because of the wealth of mini games. There’s so much complexity here that the landscape is littered with hint cubes.
At first I was annoyed. But if I hadn’t had help on the Portal level, I might not have made it through before the demo ended (and it was as awesomely complex as Portal itself.)
There’s more to this game than just LEGO: It’s also about the properties that LEGO animates and brings to brick-life. It’s obvious that this game was made with a lot of love by its creators.
For example, the life bar, displayed as hearts on the upper left corner, changes with each character. Instead of a heart, Shaggy and Scooby’s life bars are displayed as dog bones. Gandalf’s hearts look like they were designed by Tolkien’s elves. Every one of the Doctor’s hearts is doubled.
Oh, you like Doctor Who? LEGO has the Doctor for you — all of them. Plus, the interior of the TARDIS changes, based on which Doctor you’re controlling. Even better: You can change the theme music, from old-school 1963 to the current version … and everything in between.
The voice-acting talent is top notch too, and the dialogue is even better. LEGO hired the original actors for most properties, so we get to hear Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, Sean Astin as Sam Gamgee, Don Castenella as Homer Simpson and so many others.
As for Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi (along with Jenna-Louise Coleman and Michelle Gomez) voiced original dialogue, while Traveller’s Tales pulled dialogue from the television show for the other Doctors. (John Hurt’s War Doctor not included—but a high-five to LEGO Dimension producer Doug Heder for recognizing that WarDoc was missing).
LEGO Dimensions is like playing multiple games in one: The worlds of Lord of the Rings, DC Comics, The LEGO Movie, Portal, Doctor Who, Jurassic Park, The Wizard of Oz, Scooby-Doo, The Simpsons, Ghostbusters and others are here, waiting to be explored, broken and reassembled. Sounds great, right? But …
… although you can play every universe, you need to purchase a special pack to access the "adventure worlds." (For example, you need to buy the Back to the Future level pack if you want to play “A Hill Valley Time Travel Adventure” level.)
The Dimensions starter pack is $99.99. Sold separately are six level packs ($29.99), four team packs ($24.99) and 10 fun packs ($14.99). Without purchasing those other packs, the bulk of the game will forever be tucked away out of your reach. (And even if you want to play them, most packs will be released in waves until March 2016 -- that is, they're not available now). You may be able to enjoy the game without the extra packs. But completists will gnash their teeth in frustration or spend an extra $420.50 on a videogame, a total of a whopping $520.49.
LEGO Dimensions producer Doug Heder says, “We're giving you the biggest game we've ever built. We know this is a big investment, but this is a one-time investment. All future content will build on top of that. It’s a modular gaming system.” In other words, if you’re not interested in playing the Ninjago levels, you can ignore it. "You really can pick and choose."
Also, you need to be careful with these pieces. Misplace one, and you need to repurchase it. Keep them safe or suffer the expensive consequences.
UPDATED: But LEGO and Traveller's Tales has tried to make the extra purchases worth your while: The Doctor Who Level Pack comes with a LEGO mini figure of the Twelfth Doctor and LEGO models of the TARDIS and K-9. When the Twelfth Doctor is defeated, he comes back as the First Doctor, then regenerates back up to the Twelfth Doctor. He even regenerates as John Hurt's War Doctor, clear proof that the developers are as geeky as we are.
THE FEELING I HAD WHEN I WALKED AWAY
Frankly, I was almost overwhelmed. There was so much to know and to take in that I spent as much time taking notes as I did playing.
The complexity will work if you intend to get your money’s worth—as you should, considering the cost of the game. It’s clear that there’s hour upon hour of entertainment to be had, and this entertainment can be enjoyed at most age levels. After all, there is no age limit to enjoying the “crish” sound of smashing bricks.
But while the "hint" cubes are great for younger players (or demo players in a hurry), it's also a sign that the game isn't intuitive for younger players. Perhaps 7 is too young an age for the game Traveller's Tales has made.
I love LEGO games and I love LEGOs. So why didn't I love LEGO Dimensions? Really, I liked it a lot. But after the demo, I felt there was too much going on, like what would happen if you put all 12 Doctors in the same room with characters from DC and Lord of the Rings. Too much chaos, not enough space to engage. The earlier LEGO games were simpler, and these bite-sized chunks of game were easier to ingest.
But I'm more than willing to spark up LEGO Dimensions on my PlayStation 4. Why? Because making a mold, breaking it and reassembling it is what LEGO does better than anybody else.